The True Family of God: a homily

I gave the following reflection on September 25, 2007 as part of an evening prayer service at Princeton University chapel.
Luke 8:19-21
The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him but were unable to join him because of the crowd. He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.” He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”
The start of college is an important moment in the life of a family. Children leave home, often for the first extended period of time in their lives. Parents may rejoice because they have one less mouth to feed, but along with this comes an act of relinquishment, as they entrust their child to someone else’s care and protection. Children may rejoice as they enter a period of seemingly limitless freedom and exciting new possibilities, but along with this comes important new responsibilities and the scary prospect of discovery a whole new family. In short, the start of a new school year is an ideal time to reflect upon the nature of family.

Jesus has much to say about family in the Gospels, and they are some of the most uncomfortable statements in our entire Bible. Our passage for today is one of these very surprising sayings, and it is clearly one of Jesus’ most important teachings. We find the same teaching in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark, though it occurs in the context of a particular conflict with the religious leaders of his day—a context which is missing from the episode in Luke’s Gospel.

The context is simple: Jesus has just healed a man possessed by a demon. A huge crowd has gathered to witness this incredible event. Somewhere on the outskirts of this crowd, Jesus’ mother and brothers are trying to get to him. They probably tell the people in front of them that they are related to the man at the center of this crowd. The word spreads. Finally, someone tells Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.” But Jesus responds as if they don’t matter. He says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” To any normal person, this would be a great personal offense.

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 2:41-52), Jesus said something very similar to Mary and Joseph when he was a young child. Jesus’ parents lost him on the way back from Jerusalem. They found him in the temple, discussing God’s law with the religious teachers. When Mary asked Jesus why he had blown them off, Jesus responded with another harsh word, saying, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

What these texts have in common is a complete redefinition of family. The true family has God as its Father and whose children are those “who hear the word of God and act on it.” The true family is the family of God, the church, the body of Christ. The family is not first and foremost determined by bonds of earthly kinship, but rather by the bonds of spiritual kinship formed by Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection for us and our salvation. The church, in other words, is our true family, our true home. The early church father, St. Cyprian of Carthage, said quite rightly, “You can not have God as your Father if you do not have the Church as your Mother.”

For those of you just beginning college, who have perhaps left home for the first time, this should come as truly Good News. Though we may have left mothers and brothers, fathers and sisters, we gather together as the true family of God. In leaving the home in which we were raised, we are not bereft of family; in fact, thanks to God’s gracious institution of the church, our family extends in both time and space, encompassing those who have gone before us, those whom we will never meet, and those who have yet to come. By God’s grace, we are all one family. As St. Paul in the letter to the Ephesians writes, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-20).

But this Good News comes with a high calling. The redefinition of family that Jesus offers is one that changes our entire identity. A little later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims a challenging word to us, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26-27). Jesus not only redefines the meaning of family. He also tells us that this new identity, this new creation, has great implications for our life in community as the people of God. We are no longer defined by earthly bonds of blood; we are now defined by the blood of Christ shed for us, the body of Christ broken for us. We are defined by the cross of Christ, and therefore we are to be identified with Christ in that we carry our own crosses as his faithful and obedient disciples.

Let us go forth now into the world in peace as God’s family.


Anonymous said…
well done!
Anonymous said…
Well done. I wonder if you got to the freshman with this one before the frat houses did!
dw said…

Good reflections here. Have you read Rodney Clapp's Families at the Crossroads (IVP, 1993). It prefigures much of my own thinking about the church and family and resonates with your reflection.

A bit from Chapter 4 (which I cribbed from a quote online):

In the postmodern world the market and its ways have swallowed our lives whole, so that living in genuinely Christian family is almost a lost art. Recovering the purpose of Christian family, on the distinctive terms of the Christian story, requires two declarations--one negative and one positive.

The negative declaration: The family is not God's most important institution on earth. The family is not the social agent that most significantly shapes and forms the character of Christians. The family is not the primary vehicle of God's grace and salvation for a waiting, desperate world.

And the positive declaration: The church is God's most important institution on earth. The church is the social agent that most significantly shapes and forms the character of Christians. And the church is the primary vehicle of God's grace and salvation for a waiting, desperate world.

Putting the church first, of course, runs counter to the interpretation of many evangelical traditionalists. They put the biological family first. They emphatically place family at the center of God's purposes and work on behalf of the world.......

Yet, we cannot put Jesus first and still put family first. (pp. 67-68)

Patrick McManus said…

what a fitting homily! I wish someone had preached a similar one when I first started theological studies.

Have you read some of what Hauerwas has to say about families, children and ecclesiology? Check out his "The Radical Hope in the Annunciation: Why Both Single and Married Christians Welcome Children", in The Hauerwas Reader, pp. 505-18.

p.s. thanks for the notes on some of my sermons. I've just moved into a 6-point Anglican parish here in Ontario cottage-country and your words of appreciation could not have come at a better time!